As the Unified School Board of Shelby County prepared late Tuesday afternoon for what was billed as a showdown meeting on the selection of a superintendent for a new era,sides were being chosen both inside and outside the Teaching and Learning Academy building on Union Ave.
Chanting and carrying placards on the front grounds of the building, a large group was supportive of the candidacy of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, who, just before the Unified Board was formed last year, was gifted by his carry-over SCS board with a contract extension until 2015 – two full years into the planned merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools in August 2013.
The Aitken boosters were opposed by a smaller group, led by the Rev. Isaac Richmond, who are attempting to prevent the Board from hiring the current Shelby County Schools superintendent (whom they identified on pass-out materials last week as “Robert Aitken,” a gaffe that prompted John Aitken to jest that his “cousin” Robert was indeed, as the handouts proclaimed, “unfit” to head the school board.
In the rear of the building, a rally of the Stand for Children group of activists took place. It was hard to ascertain where they stood on the superintendency, but several members held signs touting Unified School Board member (and current candidate) Kevin Woods.
Inside, the School Board members, composed of former MCS and SCS board members and seven new people appointed by the Shelby County Commission, were gathering to consider a lengthy work-session agenda, on which Point 24 concerned the selection of a superintendent.
In preliminary announcements as the meeting got underway, SCS superintendent Aitken, whose contract, along with that of MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, was destined for review , demonstrated what was perhaps an unintentional sense of irony, announcing, inter alia, a weather-oriented awareness program for students entitled “After the Storm.”
That was, of course, before the storm, which began to roil after the announcement period, with a proposal from member Jeff Warren to postpone voting until next week, when the subject would be whether to conduct a candidate search or adopt some other method.
Then the clouds began to rumble good and proper, with a variety of possibilities being proposed. It brought to mind remarks made earlier in the day to the Memphis Rotary Club by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
Asked after a luncheon address if John Aitken was the logical choice, Luttrell acknowledged the SCS superintendent might have a slight advantage but said that both current superintendents were still eligible. Two other possibilities he suggested -- hiring from within and hiring someone with executive ability from the larger community.
Clearly, Luttrell was not in favor of a prolonged search, nor one beyond the county's borders.
But others were — including several MCS board holdovers and SCS maverick Diane George, who pressed for a "national" search and a lengthy process.
Most SCS holdovers felt the other way, like Snowden Carruthers, who said the need for immediate leadership would be forfeited by a prolonged search period.
Sara Lewis, ex of the MCS board, had a colorful metaphor in favor of a search process. "Unless I go outside in the parking lot, I don't know what's out there."
Then it was David Pickler's turn. The former longtime SCS chairman warned of letting too much time pass and touted the action of the Transition Planning Commission, to which he also belongs, in suggesting August as a terminal point of decision on the superintendency. (That had been more or less what an adopted motion by Luttrell, also a TPC member, had suggested.)
Martavius Jones noted that it is the board that is charged with being "the ultimate decision maker," not the TPC. He was supported in that statement by fellow MCS holdover Tomeka Hart, who had been, with Jones, a mover and shaker in the late 2010 MCS charter surrender that began the merger process.
Warren, who had proposed the search motion, then chimed in to the effect that it was hard to see how somebody not on the ground already could "fix a local problem. Therefore he recommended a vote against his own motion, which presumably had been made just to get the idea on the floor.
"Dr. Warren, the maker of the motion is not allowed to talk against it," jested board chair Billy Orgel, to general laughter.
George then offered a friendly amendment removing the term (and the concept) "national" from Warren's motion. But Patrice Robinson objected to such a modification and proposed a "separate work session" as a time to make the decision.
Mike Wissman, the Arlington mayor and SCS holdover, argued for making "the tough decision" now. He said he could support a search if "we address the other issues first," those issues being the contracts of the two current superintendents.
Chris Caldwell, one of the seven County Commission appointees, then weighed in on behalf of a search, but Valencia Kimbrough, another appointee, countered, "We are the committee. We should make the decision now." But she noted that time was left on both superintendents' contracts. "Dr. Aitken should lead us forward. ... I do not agree that Dr. Cash's work is done.
Concurring, MCS holdover Betty Mallott noted that "we have delayed for months a decision that we knew we would have to make. ... There is more than enough work for both these qualified gentlemen to do."
Pickler again, supporting Mallot's position: "I believe this is the defining moment on this board. ... The issue is, who is going to lead?"
Sara Lewis: "We need to move. We are delaying the inevitable." She then moved to call the question, and, when Orgel called for a vote, 15 of the 23 members stood, enough to prevail.
Next the vote on Warren's search motion, which had to be clarified: When it was, 14 members stood, a majority.
That was the effective end of that particular matter — until next week.
But that wasn't all. Now came a resolution from Martavius Jomes, who reviewed for his fellow board members the whole complex of coming events, including August 2nd municipal referenda and the August 2 elections for a 7-member permanent board. Then his resolution: To include on the agenda of the next meeting a proposal to delay any action on superintendency matters — until a point 45 days from the time of his remarks, the date of the current June 19 meeting. In other words, until early September, freezing the two superintendents' status until then.
David Reaves, a current member running for reelection, objected, noting that many present board members would no longer be serving. The question was called, however, with 20 members authorizing it on standing vote.
But the next vote, to confirm the addition of Jones' resolution to the next meeting's agenda, failed with only three supporters. Upshot: No freeze on superintendency matters.
Still one more debate, on a motion by MCS holdover Betty Mallott to add to the same agenda next week a resolution to begin the transfer of authority to SCS superintendent Aitken on a de facto basis.
The debate went this way and that, and the motion finally carried.
Adjournment seemed to beckon, but (and this was a big "but")there was a five-minute recess before the almost forgotten item, a special called meeting (by chairman Orgel) on the superintendents' contracts per se.
In a sense, this has been the implicit issue in everything that went beforehand.So here we go (in stream-of-consciousness present tense): Mike Wissman moves for "the hard vote" to non-renew Kriner Cash's contract. After a good deal of wrangling, parliamentarian Charles Schulz recommends the strategy of an "indefinite postponement" while continuing with discussion.
"Ladies and gentlemen, people are watching us," admonishes David Pickler (perhaps an optimist on that point, at going-on-10-o'clock). He argues against indefinite postponement. Predictably, others disagree.
Extensive conversation about the Cash contract. Hiring, firing, etc. (Where is Donald Trump when you need him?)
Meanwhile, the parliamentary knots get more complicated. (A thought: pure politicians, interested above all in getting to a deal, would never let things drag on this way.)
And further meanwhile, another motion to adjourn is defeated, with Orgel engaging in hair-splitting language about how to announce the fact. (O Dante! Behold another, undreamt-of circle of hell!)
Now, a vote approaches on "postponing indefinitely" the main motion (Wissman's). It fails, 7-13, with 2 abstentions.
Next, the question is called on Wissman's motion. Majority rise in favor of voting on it, 14-5-3.
Restating, Wissman says, "Motion is to non-renew Dr Cash's contract." A roll-call vote proceeds. The vote total is 14-8-0, 1 absent." Just like that, sayonara Cash. The momentous motion carries.
Next is the matter of Aitken's contract. Jones reads what he says is an attorney general's ruling invalidating the SCS superintendent's contract extension. A round robin amongst the board attorneys ensues, and Jones' point is somehow rendered moot. Jeff Warren moves to have matter submitted to the special master alluded to (but never appointed) by presiding federal judge Hardy Mays in his 2010 ruling on merger litigation.
Before this can be pursued (or puzzled out), Patrice Robinson moves to "non-renew" Aitken's contract and "move forward with superintendent search."
Vanecia Kimbrow has the ultimate put-down. This is not being done "for the children." Stephanie Gatewood: "I never never ever play the race card ..." But: "this issue is about black and white." (For her or for others? It's never quite clear.) If "we do it for one." she says. (i.e., fire Cash), "we need to do it for both."
Finally Patrice Robinson's motion is up, to non-renew Aitken contract "and move ahead with search." A roll-call vote fails badly, with 14 nay votes, and adjournment follows.
As the whole exhausted ensemble — board, media, audience — make their way outside for the first time in some hours, someone says to Aitken, "So now you know how the undecideds lean," and he nods. He is cornered by reporters and answers a round of questions, then says, "Hang in there!"
He says that, to them.
Poor Cash, meanwhile, has left the building and is long gone.